I so much wanted to enjoy, savor, relish this book, as the rest of the title is “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Every Published.” As a devotee of reference books, I was excited at the prospect of reading the story of how “Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language. Third Edition.” was published. I was even pleased to see that it actually begins in 1934 with the publication of “Webster’s….Second Edition.” What I didn’t appreciate was Skinner’s decision to clutter up the text with discussion of obscure literary writers and scholars, such as Dwight McDonald, Henry Seidel Canby, Charles William Eliot, and Charles Carpenter Fries. While these individuals had roles to play in the development of literary culture and linguistics, Skinner presented too much background information on them. When Skinner actually devoted space to his thesis–that editor-in-chief Philip Gove changed Webster’s International Dictionary from an elite prescriptive dictionary full of enyclopedic entries and obscure cultural references to a more descriptive work that captured English in its current usage–I was captivated. Skinner surveys 20th-century culture to show it was changing due to the world wars and how new words entered the language. He also shows how people’s word usage changed and how scholars came to realize that the standard rules of grammar and usage no longer applied. As a result of this linguistic shift, “Webster’s Third” was highly criticized by Dwight McDonald and others who thought the dictionary should uphold the traditional culture, not reflect the new one. The inclusion of the word “ain’t” didn’t cause controversy simply for its inclusion, since it was also listed in Webster’s Second. Instead, it was controversial because it was a symbol of how the dictionary changed its usage notes on many colloquial words to make them “nonstandard” and remain neutral regarding which words educated people should use.
Readers who want a more focused book on the topic of dictionaries should read
“The Professor and the Madman” about the Oxford English Dictionary.